OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / Wired for Stories
TONY KAHN / STORYTELLER / TRURO
Tony Kahn worked in public tv and radio for more than 40 years. He hosted a news program, pioneered podcasts, and told stories of ordinary people for NPR’s Morning Edition. And he wrote and produced Blacklisted. It’s the story of his family’s 15-year exile and surveillance by the FBI. Tony and his wife have lived in Truro part time for about 35 years. To listen to Blacklisted in six episodes, go to TonyKahn.org/blacklisted.
As soon as I realized that my father was a writer, I thinkI wanted to be a writer.I was just wiredto want to tell stories and to want to see words come together and turn into something that would take somebody else away. My father did notencourage me. I think it really frightened him to think that I might expose myself to the same ups and downs that he'd gone through as a writer. And that he was sort of trying to protect me and to protect himself from seeing himself repeated in me.
In my late twenties,I was luckily in Boston, which was the perfect place to be, if you were interested in public broadcasting, either radio or television. Boston had the best public television station in the country. I got jobs writing for them. And little by little, I realized that when somebody asked me, “What do you do?” I could say, “I'm a writer.” ButI had to fight very hard against that sense that I wasn't supposed to be doing this.
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In the mid-eighties, I was looking for something to do. I worked freelance, and there hadn’t been any particular project for a while. And I didn’t know what I was going to do next. A lot of people think that Blacklistedmay have been the best thing that I've done, or the thing that's most likely to stick around. All I know is that I had a feelingthat I was not only telling the story well but understandingit in a way I never had before.
Blacklisted is the story of the 15 years that my father, my mother, my aunt Janet, my brother Jim, and I went through as political exiles because of the Hollywood blacklist. From 1947 until about my father’s death in 1962, we were on the run from the FBI, from neighbors who thought we were enemy agents, from anybody who was scared of being seen with us.
My father died when I was 17 years old. And I realized as years went by that we’d never had a chance to be grownups together. For me, writing Blacklistedwas a way of being able to update my understanding by hearing my father's voice in his words and writing, and by hearing the voices of all the other people around us who were often so scared.
What I was aware of as a child was no matter where I went, I was called a dirty name. In California, I was called a “communist“ by the neighbors. In Mexico, I was called “the gringo” and one of the people who had ruined Mexico, and when we returned to the United States, I was called a “wetback” and a “spic” because I'd come from Mexico and had been brought up in a slightly different culture.The words might've changed, but the feeling always was, Well, you don't belong here. You're not one of us.
My father was a screenwriter in Hollywood for 20 years. Then, he got into a lot of trouble with the movie industry because he was left wing.Anybody who had left-wing ideas at that point was suspected of being an enemy of the United States, a communist. And the House Un-American Activities Committee was looking for communists in hidden places. Well, they decided to start with Hollywood.
So, my father was one of the very first screenwriters the committee called. You're asked one thing. Are you a member of the communist party? Have you ever been? If you don't tell us, and you don't tell us the names of other communists, we're going to hold you in contempt, and that's going to mean you may go to prison.
So, for 15 years, my father couldn't work under his own name and could barely work at all. He never gave into the committee that was after him to betray his friends. And he never complained. I never got to talk to him about how hard things were. He never wanted to go there. And he died youngat the age of 60 of a heart attack. And I think that has to be attributed inlarge measure to the bitterness that he had to swallow constantly.
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It used to be said that public radio makes the best pictures, ‘cause they happen in your head. And what you need to make them happen in your head are just the right inducements in the writing and in the sound effects and in the movement of those sound effects through the space that gets created when youlistenthat bring them to life.
Everything that happened in Blacklistedhad to be something that somebody could visualize. It couldn’t be abstract, ever! It had to be here are these people, this is what they would say to each other, this is what happened to them, and then this happened, and then this happened.
If there were a rainstorm, it wasn’t a rainstorm from a sound effects album. It was the rainstorm that was happening let’s say during the rainy season in Mexico. And I would go down to Mexico, and I would record sheep and geese and ducks and pigs and the sounds of trucks, little things, a dog barking in the distance.
Working on Blacklistedwas maybe the most wonderful working experience of my life. At that point, there were enough advances in the digital technology that you could for about $10,000, pull together enough gear to record and edit and produce something that otherwise would have cost you, two or three years before, hundreds of thousands of dollars of studio time.
I had world-class actors who fell into my lap. I never recorded any of the actors together at the same time. So, I would record some in LA, some in New York. But I would always play the person they were talking to in the drama. I would be working like a chef in my attic with all these elements, with my little equipment. I had miniaturized the world down to a place where I could just create.
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What I learned (from Blacklisted) was that the difference between the people who informed and the people who didn't, the people who went along with the fear and the committee and those who didn't, was almost so small as to be microscopic. They belonged to the same organizations. They had the same friends, they sent their kids to the same schools. They professed to have the same ideas until suddenly they had to decide whether they were going to go along with the committee and save their jobs and maybe protect their families, or not. And that it is really arrogant to assume that you're one of the good guys, and not like everybody else, until the momentcomes (to choose). That’s the moment of character, and nobody knows beforehand.
If there's any lesson I'd like to pass on to anybody, it would be this: Don't be so quick to make things seem black and white in a time when everybody is scared, and everybody is suffering. It's very rare in times like that for people not to behave terribly.
By 1962, when my father died, the blacklist effectively had ended. But (it happened) individually. You know, it still took a person saying, “Okay, it's safe for me to come out.” And my father never got to that point, sadly, because I think he would have been okay.